HARRISON, N.J. — The road to the 2018 World Cup just became much tougher and much less certain for the U.S. national team. The stage was set for the Americans to post a big home win on Friday night, but Costa Rica didn't get that memo.
On a frustrating night at a sold-out Red Bull Arena, the Americans wasted chances, made defensive blunders and watched some questionable referee decisions go against them. They also watched an organized and motivated Costa Rican side execute its game plan to perfection on the way to a 2-0 victory on Saturday night.
The U.S. came into the match undefeated in 2017 and with several players in excellent form, but that didn't translate into efficient play on a night when the Americans needed a win at home. There were some promising build-ups and passing combinations, but the final pass never connected and shots went begging. The U.S. had a good case for a penalty-kick call in the first half that went ignored, and Keylor Navas stepped up with a world-class save to deny the best U.S. chance of the night. But ultimately the Ticos did a good job of stifling an American attack that never quite found a good rhythm.
"We obviously didn't play well on the night," Arena said. "We didn't make any plays that mattered. We were probably outplayed in most positions on the field and didn't capitalize on several opportunities. We didn't have a good night. I thought they outplayed us and outcoached us."
Very little went right for the Americans. Costa Rica roughed up 18-year-old star Christian Pulisic for much of the night and stayed organized defensively, limiting the Borussia Dortmund midfielder's threats, even as he tried making a mark on the right wing and then centrally.
"(Pulisic) had a tough game today," Arena said. "You could see they paid a lot of attention to him. Obviously, you could see early in the game that they always sent a second player to him."
Darlington Nagbe saw a ton of the ball and looked composed in the increased playmaker role, but far too often he was left starved for passing outlets other than Michael Bradley and Tim Howard as the Ticos midfield closed space quickly with its 5-4-1 setup, which left the Americans little room to operate. The strike tandem of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood saw few opportunities to threaten as the Ticos midfield did a good job of congesting the middle.
"Darlington and Michael were not the problems in our game tonight," Arena said. "The backline made some mistakes. We didn't come up with any big saves. Our attack players weren't dangerous on the night. I thought Darlington and Michael had solid games."
It was a very different Costa Rica side than the one the Americans faced in the Gold Cup semifinals in July. Aside from Navas and Celso Borges, who skipped the Gold Cup, the Ticos played the U.S. in July without several of the same wide players who featured on Friday. Wing-backs Bryan Oviedo and Cristian Gamboa suffered injuries during the Gold Cup that sidelined them, as did Cristian Bolanos and Johan Venegas.
With a healthy set of wing options, Costa Rica was able to effectively neutralize American wingers Pulisic and Fabian Johnson for much of the night.
"Give them credit, they came out with a very aggressive posture going up the field and, after conceding that first goal, they weren't going to come out a whole lot," Arena said. "We had to break down seven or eight players for long periods of the game. They did a good job. Navas made one very good save. We had a couple of plays where we have to put the ball in the back of the net and it's 1-0. We didn't do that."
Arena couldn't really be blamed for the attacking options he went with, but he'll draw criticism for the defense he fielded, specifically the decision to partner Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron, who both played terribly on the night. Ream was badly beaten on the first Costa Rica goal, with Cameron offering little help due to poor positioning. Then Cameron's bad pass and slow reaction helped set up Marco Urena's second goal of the night.
The poor chemistry shown between Ream and Cameron led to a surprising amount of trouble dealing with the feisty Urena, who did a good job of splitting the American defenders and causing problems despite being the lone striker in the Costa Rica attack. That showing will lead to second-guessing of Arena, who chose Ream over Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, who both performed well at the Gold Cup. But Arena defended Ream's overall performance and the decision to start him.
"Tim Ream had a solid game," Arena said. "Tim is a player with a lot of experience in this level and there's no reason to believe he can't play in these games."
Even Clint Dempsey couldn't help salvage a result for the Americans. It was Dempsey who came off the bench and broke a scoreless deadlock with a goal and assist in the 2-0 U.S. win over Costa Rica in July. On Friday, Dempsey found little room to operate.
All of a sudden, the World Cup qualifying chances Arena had helped revive are back in jeopardy heading into Tuesday's trip to Honduras, which moved into a tie with the Americans in the CONCACAF qualifying standings after beating Trinidad & Tobago, 2-1, on Friday. While Costa Rica moved a step closer to qualifying for the World Cup, the U.S. suddenly finds itself in serious jeopardy heading into a match it can't afford to lose, and one the Americans will have to play without Altidore, who is suspended after picking up a suspect yellow card."We have to put this past us real quick," Arena said. "We lost to a team that played better than us tonight. We're not able to get this game back. It's over with. We have to regroup and get our team ready for Tuesday."